In Himalayas, exercise caution
As Char Dham registration begins, work on a long-term plan to protect the fragile ecosystem
Every year, as pilgrims make their way up from Haridwar to the holy Hindu shrine of Badrinath at the cusp of summer, the last big stop on the 10-something-hour journey is the hill town of Joshimath. This year, however, eager devotees packed in buses and cars are likely to be greeted by a far more tragic sight – that of houses with cracks and dilapidated buildings, and the ground riven by subsidence and landslides, scars left by the rampage of unchecked development.
The tragedy at Joshimath forms the backdrop as the online and offline registration for the Char Dham Yatra – a tour of four of the holiest Hindu sites of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, all located in Uttarakhand – begins on February 20. A record 4.6 million people visited the state as part of this pilgrimage in 2022, and the numbers are expected to swell this year, potentially exerting more pressure on an already collapsing ecosystem. For weeks, tens of thousands of devotees and tourists will pass through small towns and villages, their arrival spurring the construction of hotels, homestays and shops on unstable slopes and hill fronts, and putting more cars and buses on narrow mountain roads. Tourism forms the backbone of the local economy and is the reason residents have historically resisted capping the number of visitors, a prospect that also appears politically unfeasible. Yet, exercising caution and prudent management of yatra is imperative in the face of the still-unfolding tragedy in Joshimath, and signs of an impending one elsewhere in the state.
The government has announced that the pilgrimage will be smoother and better managed this year, with prior information about the number of people passing through each shrine. The administration has done well to ask local authorities to fix the carrying capacity, deploy earth-moving machines, and ensure waste-management facilities, in order to ensure that unnecessary pressure is not exerted on the Himalayas. A more holistic and long-term plan to manage construction and development in this region would be a good second step – one that respects faith and the exalted position of these shrines, but also acknowledges the warning signs that nature is sending and the need to safeguard this fragile ecosystem and region, in a sustainable manner, for future generations.